Israeli universities wooing American college students

It is not so much the stone-washed denims and cotton T-shirts they wear on this hot day, but the overwhelming sense of confidence they exude.

"They act as if they belong here, as if they own the place," says Jennifer, one of the organizers of the recent seminar, which attracted North American students from five Israeli universities.

"Sure, they brought a lot of confidence with them from the States, but Jewishly speaking, I think it really came together for them here in Israel."

The students, who are completing a semester or full year of study at one of Israel's universities, readily agree.

"This was the best, best, best year," says University of Wisconsin student Elizabeth Lamin, who spent her junior year studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Sporting a button proclaiming "I Love Israel," Lamin says, "This was my first time in the country, and it really blew me away."

During her freshman year at Wisconsin, Lamin was the only Jew among 63 students on her dorm floor.

"On Yom Kippur and other holidays, I felt compelled to go from room to room and explain what being Jewish is all about," she says.

In Israel, "there's nothing to explain," she adds. "I don't have to be a teacher."

Lamin, who in 1979 moved with her family from Russia to St. Paul, Minn., says that her experience in Israel has changed her life. Her experience has led her to believe that after college, she should move to New York or Los Angeles or "even Israel."

"I need to be a part of a bigger Jewish community. Judaism is an integral part of my life now."

Comments like these are music to the ears of David Harman, director general of the Jewish Agency for Israel/World Zionist Organization's Joint Authority for Jewish-Zionist Education.

Harman, who oversees dozens of programs for teens and young adults, believes the most effective Israel-based programs are the ones designed for post-high school or college students, as well as recent graduates.

Referring to the 2,000 to 2,500 overseas students — three-quarters of whom are North Americans — who attend Israeli universities and programs every year, Harman says: "In terms of an Israel experience, you could not ask for a better age group."

While he wholeheartedly supports summer programs for high schoolers, Harman says older students "can assimilate a lot more."

Such young adults "are searching for an identity, content and meaning, when they are in a period of flux."

While acknowledging that some diaspora students spend more time partying than studying, Harman maintains that "a period of time spent well in Israel contributes significantly to the formation of the students' Jewish identities, and helps form the Jewish attitudes and behaviors they will carry with them in the future."

This view is shared by Yisrael Roe, vice provost of Hebrew University's Rothberg School for Overseas Students.

Citing follow-up surveys conducted by the university one or two years after the foreign students have returned to their home countries, he says, "The uniform picture is of greater commitment and involvement in Jewish practice, whether that be social, religious or in a leadership context.

"Our former students tell us they're more committed to their Jewish communities in the diaspora thanks to their studies with us," he says.

Harman, who would like to see the number of overseas students quadruple within the next few years, says Israeli and American educators are constantly trying to find ways to make post-high school study in Israel a more attractive option.

"The post-high school students we get are self-motivated. They're coming because they want to, not because their parents are forcing them to come. Their expectation is to have a good time and to bond with the country."

The real challenge, says Harman, is to attract those with fewer ties to their Jewish roots.

"Done right, an Israel experience at this age is the defining experience in [the students'] Jewish identity.

"Unfortunately, the lure of Israel and Judaism isn't as great as we'd like it to be," he says, noting that many young people want to move straight into their careers.

To woo college-age youths, the Joint Authority was involved in launching a marketing consortium in 1996 called Israel Experience Inc., designed to promote Israel programs to high school seniors and college students.

Courses in ecology and sports have been offered, and Harman hopes to attract computer, science and pre-med students with programs tailored to their needs.

Roe, whose university attracts about 1,000 North American students every year, agrees. "The key is to provide courses that students feel contribute to their goals, not detract from them."

Like many overseas students, Adrienne Pollock, a University of Cincinnati student who completed her junior year at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, stresses that "the most important part of an Israel Experience program is experiencing Israel. Coursework isn't everything."

Pollack said she chose Ben-Gurion University, away from a big city, so she could have the "experience of living with Israelis, of going to the supermarket and really learning the culture without a lot of Americans around."

Pollack, who says she hopes to go on to rabbinical school, echoes the view of many students when she says, "This year has been fantastic."